Category Archives: Mental Health

Faith, Strength and Weakness: Guest Blog by YouBelong

(Please note: I have used the term ‘He’ to describe God because this is a pronoun I am comfortable using but please replace it with whatever pronoun/s you feel more comfortable with when reading it that enables you understand God in all their fullness). 

When Rachael asked me to write something for the blog, she asked that I write something on the topic of faith and strength/ weakness. At first, this felt impossible because strength and weakness are opposites. 

You might be familiar with the words of 2 Corinthians 12:10 which say, ‘That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and the troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong’. This reminds us that although there might be times we feel strong, for example after a good gym session, or when we are able to overcome a mental challenge, we are only truly strong enough to overcome the hard things that life throws at us when we acknowledge our weakness. When we do this, we allow God to step in and be our strength and even the world’s strongest person cannot compete with God!

When I became unwell back in Spring 2014, I was unable to eat or drink and lost lots of weight which eventually led to me becoming too weak to stay awake more than a couple of hours at a time or walk up and down the stairs in my house without being exhausted! At the time, I was spending all my free time being involved and serving in my local church and this meant that my faith was filled to the brim and overflowing which enabled me to give my weakness to God. Although my body remained physically weak, my faith never failed and even during the worst of tests, procedures and operations, I felt God with me and felt His strength working in and through me. 

Thankfully, I had an operation in the December of that same year which enabled me to gain weight back and start to become a bit stronger. A few months on and I still wasn’t back to where I had been before becoming unwell but every doctor I saw told me it would just take time. Almost 5 years on, I have faced more medical issues and spend more time in bed and resting or asleep than I have ever done before. As someone who loves ticking off items on a to do list and puts a huge amount of my worth into productivity and getting things done, I really struggle to work out my purpose and love myself as I am on days when I can’t do things I need or want to do.

 I am reliant on those around me to deal with a lot of the household chores and to cover the financial costs of the household as I am unable to do those things which as someone in their late 20s, is really hard to deal with. I am heavily reliant on other people and even if I really wanted to, there are some things I just can’t do anymore. The Free Dictionary defines ‘weak’ as ‘lacking’ – lacking in physical strength, emotional strength, mental strength, spiritual strength etc.

In Psalm 23 we read, ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside quiet waters, He refreshes my soul.’ Worldly speaking, I lack quite a lot. I lack relationships, independence and freedom (from pain, to choose what I eat, to go out and do what I want, when I want and more), but I know that when I put my faith and trust in God and follow Him, He leads me into a life of fullness, peace, provision, protection and more. 

When we depend on God, we do not lack. I reckon you know this all already though. I knew this before I became chronically ill but it’s not very easy to put into practise.

So how do we go about trusting God and allowing His strength to become ours in our weakness?

YouBelong, which I have founded and manage, as a community are currently doing a bible study which is taking us through the Psalms in chronological order (as close to it as we can anyway). Some of the earlier Psalms are written by David and tell us about his time running away from Saul and other dangerous people. David felt weak in those moments. He knew there was nothing he could do to save himself but God could. He recognised his weakness and God’s strength, he recalled scripture, worshipped God in his victories, connected and shared with other believers and asked God to help and save him… and God showed up. God gave David the strength to get through those times because David accepted he was weak and leaned into God. 

Nehemiah 8:10 reads, ‘The joy of the Lord is our strength’. Happiness is something that we feel when we receive a nice gift, eat something tasty, spend time with good friends or watch our favourite film but joy is different. Joy isn’t circumstantial – it is a choice. We can choose to be joyful even when life is full of difficult things. When we feel unwell, when we are upset, sad or angry, when the year doesn’t turn out the way we wanted (hello 2020!), we can still choose joy when our joy comes from knowing Jesus. I could never say that I feel happy Jesus endured great suffering and died a horrendous death but I am joyful because He did it for me to give me eternal life. Life can be very hard and there’s no denying that, even Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble…”. Becoming a follower of Jesus doesn’t make life easy but we have something that unbelievers don’t have and it is through knowing God that we can find joy and through the joy of our relationship with Him that we can find strength in our human weaknesses.

There have been many times that I have felt weak, physically, emotionally and mentally, but each time that I recognise I am weak and that God is strong, read my bible, pray, worship and lean on Him, I can feel God’s strength seeping in. I know it’s His and not mine because it happens at times when I have no strength left. Sometimes in those moments God gives me physical strength but more often, it’s a mental, emotional or spiritual strength that enables me to get through the times of physical weakness rather than overcome it. 

As I said before, this is easier said than done. It takes time to get to know and trust God and to remember (and choose) to go to God straight away rather than rely on our own strength (or more often than not, lack of).

Today might be a day that you are feeling particularly weak. Perhaps your physical strength is gone, or you feel mentally and emotional unable to deal with the day ahead. That’s okay. I said at the start of this post that I wasn’t sure how to talk about weakness and strength because they are opposites but God’s kingdom is a place of opposites; give to receive, serve to be served, to live means to give your life and the last will be first. Being weak is often viewed as a bad thing in this world but we need to remind ourselves that in God’s kingdom everything is upside down and back to front. A weakness given to God is a great strength because in God’s kingdom, when we are weak, then we are strong, because of Him. 

Laura is the Director and Blogger for YouBelong

A Familiar Fog

I could feel the lump solidifying in my throat, my eyes burned and brimmed with tears, the exhaustion had settled upon me like a leaden cloak.

It was all too familiar.

I have been acquainted with this fog for over half of my life, and yet it still catches me unawares.

It’s different now, though. Instead of retreating to sleep to let it pass, there is my gorgeous pint sized whirlwind dancing around. He’s spinning in circles until he collapses in a fit of giggles, clutching his model met line train and pointing at every bird he glimpses. He does not understand why Mummy is slower, tireder and more short tempered; he makes no allowances and doesn’t adjust his expectations.

It is a terrifying gift, his living in each and every moment.

I worry often about the effect of these weeks in the fog will have on him. Will he live under his own fog? Or will it enlarge his kindness? Is this is the answer to my prayer that he would be kind before anything else, something he will learn best when I am at my worst?

In reality, if he remembers anything, he will remember more time with his beloved Daddy, train trips with his Nana and Granddad, train watching with his Grandma.

I am unreservedly grateful for those around me who stepped up and stepped in so that I could step back and recover. It is a privilege; this chance to rest and I’m all too aware of those who parent alone under the fog, who cannot step back.

I understand this fog too well, I know that it passes swiftest when I let it roll; that when I attempt to hold it all back, to stem the flow that it will inevitably fell me.

The fog is receding now, clarity rising like the morning sun, tears drying like the dew.

It is less dramatic today, than it once was, but no less exhausting.

Depression does not always scream, sometimes it lays its heaviness upon the shoulders of those who have been battling in the war for far too long.

There are no real lessons to be wrung from days like these, but my prayer as I share is that someone may reach in to another engulfed by the fog with a prayer, a text or a gift.

That those under mental illness’ tyranny will not be left to fight alone, but be met by those who may not understand, but who commit to care.

Holding Out Hope

Whether or not you’ve ever watched anything that the late Caroline Flack presented, it’s unlikely that you won’t have heard that over the weekend, Caroline died by suicide.

News of her death has filled column inches, clickbait articles and provoked debate around everything from the existence of shows such as “Love Island”, to press intrusion, the worth of mental health awareness and the need for more kindness.

Every ninety minutes someone dies by suicide. Every other hour a life is lost which leaves unimaginable pain, unanswerable questions and grief in its wake.

But in the course of everyday life, very few of us consider this, we are simply getting through our own days, so when suicide pushes itself so forcefully back into the public consciousness, we are astounded yet again by the scale and the pain of it.

The loss of someone so prominent on TV screens up and down the country brings the tragedy of suicide into our own living rooms. We are forced to conceive of that which is inconceivable. It raises age old questions:

“How could they do it?”

“Why?”

As Kay Redfield Jamieson, a psychiatrist and author writes in her book Night Falls Fast:

“Each way to suicide is its own: intensely private, unknowable, and terrible. Suicide will have seemed to its perpetrator the last and best of bad possibilities, and any attempt by the living to chart this final terrain of a life can be only a sketch, maddeningly incomplete.”

For those of us who have experienced suicidal thoughts; considered, however briefly, taking our own lives there is a sharp edge to these questions. A sharp edge to the passing judgements of strangers online which declare that suicide is “selfish” or “stupid”, because it is a very real reminder that some have been unable to stay in the world.

Suicide cannot be considered in those terms; it is unspeakable for so many, both because of the pain it leaves with those whose lives are claimed, and for those who have lived in spite of a pull toward an abrupt ending.

Suicide is not selfish, because for the most part, the people who die by suicide believe themselves to be relieving others of a great burden. Caroline herself wrote on Instagram in the months before her death that she feared “being a burden”, it can be an impossibly high barrier to reach across to ask for help.

It is not stupid; because it is often seen as the only course of action for those who have reached past their tether.

Suicide is a tragedy. Over the past thirteen years as I’ve both battled with suicidality, studied it and written about it, tragedy is the only word that even begins to do justice to the enormity and pain of it – for those who lose their lives, those who lose their loved ones and those who  live through it.

For the christian, there are more questions. Is it the unforgivable sin? Can they be saved?

And all I can do is to look to scripture, and to lean on the character of the God I have known and trusted for almost twenty-five years. The only unforgivable sin recorded in the Bible is that of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit – which is nothing to do with suicide, and the idea that those who take their own lives being unable to enter glory because of their inability to repent renders the gospel of grace obsolete. Not one of us dies having confessed and repented every sin!

But more than this; we see how God responds to those who consider suicide in the Bible and we are presented with a picture of care and grace, help and hope.

There are a number of completed suicides and considered suicides in the Bible; from King Saul falling on his sword, to Elijah begging for death on Mount Horeb, from Judas’ death to the desperate philippian jailer. In these accounts, there is no moral judgement made. There is prohibition of taking life, yes, in many places in the Bible; but the responses the scriptures record to those considering suicide speak volumes to me.

Elijah is ministered to with food, drink and rest.

The philippian jailer is drawn from harming himself – to hearing the gospel and being baptised.

These passages do not encourage suicide, but they do widen the angle of our viewing to see that when people are desperate they can be ministered to and helped. There is hope.

So that is what I think we need to do, to widen our angle of viewing to consider not just what things look like at face value, to minister to the hurting and hold out hope for those whose view is blurred by tears, until they can hope for themselves once more, drawing from the infinite kindness of our God.

The Way of the Waves

There are things you begin to notice.

Your voice quietens, just a little.

Noise seems louder, scratching at your eardrums.

You’re more easily irritated, patience worn thin.

You are tired, the tiredness spreads through your body like slowly freezing water. It is cold, painful and slows your thoughts and movement.

The feelings are dully familiar, and yet they catch you by surprise because the reprieve has been so long, so welcome.

Thoughts and feelings you have written about many times in the past tense have crept back into your present and they are as fresh and frightening as they were the first time.

Depression is an unwelcome returning guest. And yet you welcome you must, for fighting delay and worsens the inevitable tide which may or may not knock you off your feet.

You know how it goes, it’s a tide you’ve chased many times before and yet it feels new.

The newness is the baby, your delight, who gives no heed to your falling mood or slowing movements. He still needs to be fed, entertained, cherished.


Being a Mum made me reach out sooner than I might have done in the past; because there is not just me and my husband to consider, but a tiny boy who depends on us for everything (whether or not he cares to agree with this.)

And so I fell into my community, I allowed them to care for my family. We accepted help from all sides and I tried to push away the guilt and shame.

I realised, this time, that pride had crept in over the months and years of relative wellness. I speak of struggle in the past tense, I am a “new me” now.

Somewhere along the way, I had forgotten that I still need the grace I encourage others to share.

That I experience more freedom is no small amount of work – but it is also the way of the waves – that they have been ridden and not overwhelmed me.

So I write because I believe in honesty, in fighting the stigma (even if today it exists only in my own mind) and in a God who does His most beautiful work in our weakness.

 

Speak of Suicide and Speak Hope #WSPD2019

“You aren’t going to do anything silly, are you?”

“Can you promise you won’t do anything stupid?”

A member of staff at my secondary school asked me these questions countless times during my sixth form years.

They weren’t talking about me bunking off lessons, getting into trouble or talking back; they were talking about suicide and self-harm.

Suicide is the leading cause of death for young people – it’s not silly or stupid – it’s despair.

And when those thoughts and feelings were branded stupid and silly – I heard that I myself was stupid and silly.

The language we use when we’re talking about suicide matters.

Phrases such as “committed suicide” hark back to when suicide was a criminal offence; whilst those like I was faced with fail to recognise the distress and torment that self-harm and suicidal thoughts wreak through someone’s mind and life.

It was over a decade ago, and I hope and pray that no-one struggling with thoughts of suicide and self-harm is met with such language, because the fight for life from those depths is hard enough as it is, without the stigma that can stalk it.

Every year, when the 10th September arrives I’m filled with a mixture of the heaviest grief and a flaming hope that thing can change.

Because my experiences with suicide when I was younger, even though I survived them, have marked my heart. And those marks on my heart fan the flame of hope – because I believe that light does win – that suicide is preventable.

I can speak of hope alongside speaking of suicide because I live with suicide as a part of my story and hope as my daily reality.

If there is someone in your life who is struggling, let your words spark hope rather than cause spirals of despair.

Think about the language you’re using, listen to their story before you rush in with answers and imagine with them what the future can look like and hold their hand as you point to it.

The people who made the most difference in my life during those darkest of times, were the ones who believed in a future for me that I could not conceive of. They were persistent in their belief that hope was real, that there was a life for me to live and yet they allowed me to voice the hardest of words.

It is no exaggeration to say that I would not be here without them and the hope they pointed to.

The hope they pointed to was not an abstract “things will get better”, but rooted the One who walked to His own death for our sakes.

That Jesus’ took on our despair and sin, died on the cross and walked out of the grave with His scars remaining, that’s the hope I looked to through my tears.

It’s the hope I live for today.

That we are saved by a Creator God who willingly gave Himself for us, to endure the worst of humanity so that we may experience the glorious closeness of Him.

That we can speak of hope, on a day which highlights despair, is the work of the One who marked the night’s sky with stars and the Saviour’s hands with scars.

 

 

 

After Awareness

There are, it seems, awareness days for everything under the sun.  A quick google revealed that this month alone there is a World Sepsis Day, a Pension Awareness Day, International Talk Like a Pirate Day and a National Doodle Day.

Everything has it’s day; and don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful that lesser known or stigmatised conditions are being recognised (although I’m not particularly sure that doodling really needs awareness!).

Indeed, we make an effort at ThinkTwice to get involved with days like World Suicide Prevention Day and Mental Health Awareness Week, but we also talk about suicide and mental health the rest of the year too!

And that’s the challenge; do awareness days and weeks actually raise awareness and build understanding? Because they only really work if the awareness leads to understanding.

I think in Britain most of us are now aware that mental health conditions exist and that they’re common. But I wonder if our understanding of mental health condition, of the way they tear through lives and the damage they leave in their wake is really understood.

Mental illnesses are often chronic, and their effects are felt not only by the one with the diagnosis; but by family, friends and colleagues. Our understanding of mental illness has to include understanding how far reaching their impact.

So this year, instead of marking every awareness day in the calendar (although, if you do manage that you probably deserve some kind of reward!) but pick one or two and commit to developing your understanding now you’ve got some awareness.

 

Take Care

I wrote this last year as a part of the ThinkTwice #TakeCare campaign and it seems right to share it here to mark this years Self Harm Awareness Day.

For the longest time, the idea of taking care of myself was an anathema to me.

I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to do something nice for me – and I found it acutely painful when someone reached out with an act of care or words of comfort.

I just didn’t feel I deserved it.

I didn’t feel I deserved to be liked – and I certainly didn’t deserve the luxury of eating or taking care of myself.

The hatred I had towards myself and my body was unlike I’d ever experienced – it was visceral and violent. And the only way I could manage the intense feelings was by cutting myself or making myself sick.

Both the self-harm and eating disorder served the same function – to manage the unmanageable – to make the mysterious emotional pain, tangible.

I used to wonder, as I watched the scars heal, whether something inside me could be healing in tandem.

It was bundle of contradictions, even then.

I was consumed with shame – but the only way I knew how to deal with the shame was to hurt myself.

I believed God forgives sins – but I couldn’t count myself among the forgiven.

And then, still in the depths of self-destruction, I went to Bible College.

Before I went, I made a strange decision to be myself. I decided I wasn’t going to hide behind a facade – but be honest about who I was and how I was feeling. I fully expected to be hated and disliked. I’d convinced myself that those who loved me did so out of duty.

The problem was, people welcomed me, they became my closest friends.

It turned my worldview on its head.

And yet I still lived under my own tyranny.

Until eventually, I began to loosen my grip on my self-destruction and cereal eating.

With the support and encouragement of my friends, I began to take care of myself.

Small ways at first; making sure I got out in the fresh air once a day, eating more in small increments.

The small increments grew; I started to eat more healthily, exercise gently.

It took a long time to get anywhere near something which looks like recovery, the thoughts have remained, but life became a better option than death.

Quite simply, I let the community around me love me back to life.

As they cared for me; drying my tears and  encouraging my faltering steps, I began to take care of myself.

I glimpsed something of a God who cared more than I could imagine through the acts of care I received from my friends.

And so this week in particular, I want to encourage you, reading these words, to take care of those around you who are struggling.

And to those of you who are struggling – hold on – and let those who love you take care of you.

For more information on self harm and where to get help- check out www.selfharm.co.uk

Vulnerability Hangover

On Sunday I preached three times on a theology of mental health and finding Jesus in the darkest of places, sharing some of my story along the way.

It’s something I do a lot, it’s a part of my job.

But there was something particularly poignant about sharing at my home church. Usually I can share and then leave churches to mull over their response without having to worry that lots of people now know some of the darkest parts of my story. Sharing this message at my home church seemed riskier somehow; they’re family, I see them every week.

And after each service yesterday I felt as though I were missing a layer of skin and today I feel a little bruised – but in a good way – because I think I’ve learned a few things along the way about story sharing and the vulnerability hangover which follows.

Over the past seven years of sharing some of my story online and in person; gearing up to release the book there have been a few things that have helped keep me safe and sane along the way.

  1. The first is that very early on, I decided on the parameters of what was for sharing and what was to be kept safe. This has been a helpful yardstick, knowing how much of my story to share from the beginning means that I’m not tempted to share more or less depending on the situation and I don’t get into tricky situations where some people know more than others and I have to keep track of who knows what!
  2. The second is related to the first, but its that I’m mindful to share my own story – not anyone else. Obviously there are plenty of other key characters in my story, but their stories are not mine to tell, where I do share stories featuring others I make sure they have copy-approval before I share and anonymise them if needs be.
  3. Thirdly, as much as there are parts of my story I keep between myself and my loved ones, I recognise that my story is just a tiny part of the story of God’s people trying to love Him better and share that love the best way they know how. It doesn’t matter, ultimately if others think differently of me because of my story; what matters is that at every junction I point others to the ultimate author. Telling our stories shouldn’t be done at the expense of the gospel to fill time, but told to highlight the greater story we are all a part of.
  4. Finally, I try to make sure that a day of intense vulnerability is followed by one of rest and fun. If I’m to keep doing what I believe God is calling me to do, I need to make sure that I’m having time to recharge and allow the bruises to heal.

What things do you think are important when sharing your story?

Stories in Safe Places

I spent much of yesterday with a group of chaplains talking about suicide.

Perhaps not the way many would choose to spend their Wednesday, but it is arguably the most important part of my job.

People, unsurprisingly, don’t like talking about suicide; it’s scary and taboo.

And yet at the centre of every suicide; every attempt and every lost life is a story.

They are stories of pain, shame, grace and brutal bravery.

Bravery?

Yes, because choosing life when everything in you is begging for death is a brutal kind of bravery.

Some do not manage to ever be called brave; their deaths are shrouded in shame and fear.

But behind every suicide, every suicidal thought, every suicide attempt is a bravery that has so often fought for life by the minute before their final curtain fell.

It is not that someone’s suicide should be celebrated, but those living with its’ reality should not be denigrated either.

The stories of lives suicide has ended, interrupted or scarred are hidden in the libraries of our communities under fake smiles and exhaustion.

The darkest stories of our lives can be redeemed – but these stories have to be shared.

They don’t need to be shared on stages or social media, but with trusted people who can hold our stories and allow us to explore them so that we can come to terms with who we are, where we’ve been and what we’ve done.

Ann Voskamp writes that:

“Shame dies when stories are told in safe places.”

What we need to do is create the safe places for stories to be shared.